Simplification of games seems to be a hot spot for endless discussions among players. This is not a new phenomenon, but still vital and provocative. Without answering whether it is good or bad, let's see what makes a game difficult or easy. Psychology provides an answer to this question by describing the problems (as such) and the processes involved in solving them. On the surface, it has nothing to do with games. However, the challenges posed by the game can be seen as a problem that the player wants to solve. For the purpose of this post we will use a problem in the narrower sense, ie. a challenge and a process of overcoming challenges.
A little bit about the challenges
To describe commonly and widely understood difficulty of the game from a psychological perspective, we need to look at what features so called ‘challenge’ possess, how the process of overcoming challenges proceeds and what affects it. The challenge can be described as a discrepancy between the current state of the game and the set or imposed goal (state desired by the player), which cannot be reduced in a routine manner. The activity of overcoming challenges is focused on the reduction of that discrepancy. Before we describe the process of overcoming challenges, let's look at the different levels on which we can place them:
1) easy/difficult - refers to the effort (especially mental) that should be put in order to find the solution. Such understanding of the difficulty will be with us to the end of the article.
2) simple/complex - describes the complexity of the mental model that should be created on the way to overcome the challenge. This model includes the structure of the challenge (answers the questions: What is the problem? How does the player want to overcome this challenge?)
Screen 1. Complex challenges which are difficult are characterized by the lack of transparency (not all the data involved in the solution is directly observable), a multitude of objectives to be achieved, the complexity of the situation (large number of initial variables and small ability to control them), a large number of links between variables (change in value of one entails changes in the others), as well as frequent postponement of the effects of the decisions made by the player. [image source: 2K Games (2013). Sid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New World. retrieved from: store.steampowered.com]
3) convergent/divergent – a convergent challenge is one that regardless of the strategy adopted by the player has only one correct solution. In contrast, divergent are those that allow for multiple strategies, leading to a variety of solutions that meet the success criteria.
4) well-defined/ill-defined - a challenge that includes the goal, the conditions of its fulfillment, as well as a description of the initial state, possible actions and obstacles is a well-defined challenge. In contrast, the challenge is ill-defined when it lacks one or more of the aforementioned elements. Note that the word ‘ill’ in this case is the description of information completeness, not an evaluative concept.
Screen 2. Games usually contain an explicit goal. However, there are exceptions - most often it is a situation in which the player defines what she wants to achieve. In this case, the choice of the goal and associated consequences (for the player's actions) can provide optimal level of difficulty. [image source: Electronic Arts (2009). The Sims 3 retrieved from: www.answers.wikia.com]
5) semantically rich/poor - challenges which are semantically rich are those for which the player has prior experience and knowledge on how to overcome them. Challenges semantically poor are those for which the player has no prior experience or does not see the possibility of transferring previously developed solutions. Difficult puzzles are generally simple but very poor semantically (that’s also the reason why they are difficult to create).
6) similar in deep/surface structure - challenges which are similar in surface are those which do not differ in the initial state. Challenges may also be similar in the deep structure, ie. relations that exist between the elements. In this case the similarity in one dimension may (but not necessarily) be associated with similarity in the other.
Screen 3. Relatively simple, convergent and ill-defined challenges (not explicitly containing all possible actions and strategies), with a surface structure similar to the previously encountered in the game, give the players a lot of difficulties. [image source: Namco Bandai Games (2012). Dark Souls. retrieved from: darksouls.fromsoftware.jp]
After describing basic dimensions of the challenges, we can now have a look at the process of overcoming them.
Fig. 1 The diagram shows the process of overcoming challenges. We can assign degrees of difficulty to the colors of individual tracks: green - easy; yellow - moderate; red - hard. As the player gains experience, the whole process runs more efficiently, ie. challenge representation is built faster; the second step is more often omitted, and the implementation step usually ends in success. [source: personal elaboration]
As it can be seen from the above diagram, the process of overcoming challenges proceeds in three successive stages:
1) Building representation of the challenge - at this stage a player collects information on the challenge posed in front of her and compares it with her knowledge/experience. If at this point it appears that the player knows the way to solve the challenges of this type, she immediately proceeds to step three. If not, the second step awaits her. Building the representation and determining what the next step will be are modified by:
a. additional outside information, for example: in the form of tutorials, tips, etc.
b. availability of relevant information, for example: they can be hidden to the player by the fog of war
c. perceived complexity of the challenge, for example: it can be decreased by reducing the importance of the variable affecting success (introduction of the regeneration of life in FPS or infinity resource deposits in the RTS)
d. diversity of meanings recognized by the player
2) Searching for solution - the player is looks for ways in which she can solve the problem. The time required to create and/or choose a solution is largely dependent on the result of the previous step. Different ways of overcoming challenges are quite extensive material. However, it’s worth mentioning that the difficulty perceived by the player may depend on the method which she chooses to solve the challenge.
Screen 4. The mere introduction of the tutorial or hints does not have to result in decrease of perceived difficulty of the game. It is more important what happens after them. Do further challenges require better definition of the problem and/or creation and correction of the adopted solution? In other words, does the player (despite mastering the game) have an opportunity to navigate through the yellow and red paths of the diagram throughout the whole game? [image source: Namco Bandai Games (2012). Dark Souls. retrieved from: darksouls.fromsoftware.jp]
3) Implementation of the solution - at this stage the success or failure is mainly modified by what happened in the previous stages. If a player built a good representation of the challenge and applied the appropriate solution, she will succeed. When a failure occurs, depending on perceived causes the player must return to one of the previous steps. As long as the player doesn’t give up completely, she redefines her representation and/or corrects chosen strategy.
Screen 5. Sometimes, despite good (complete) representation of the challenge and well-known solution the player can fail. In case of some games (eg. requiring dexterity), at some point the step of implementation may affect the difficulty of the challenge itself (the player moves on the green and red paths of the diagram). [image source: Lace Mamba (2010). Super Meat Boy. retrieved from: store.steampowered.com]
Differences in difficulty levels
Let's look at the difficulty levels, because players often have a choice in this matter. We can distinguish two basic approaches to differentiate/create difficulty levels:
1) Quantitative - those that do not cause changes in the process of overcoming challenges (a longer implementation of known solution), for example: lowering the player's attack value; opponents with higher stats.
2) Qualitative - those that affect the process (the player has to redefine the problem and correct developed solutions), for example: introduction of additional variables (adding fatigue bars or adding durability to the weapon in RPG; additional or other tactics adopted by opponents); regulating the availability of information needed to determine the problem (switching on/off map exploration in RTS).
Two things are important. Purely quantitative changes might be perceived by the player as "artificial". In contrast, the introduction of qualitative differences between each available level of difficulty which, itself should be differentiated qualitatively is most often associated with a considerable increase in the production costs.
Changes in difficulty and player commitment
There is a phenomenon of difficulty and/or complexity preference, ie. having to choose an easier or more difficult challenge (than the previous one), people usually choose those "a little" more difficult. The player gets used to the challenges at a certain degree of difficulty and loses interest in them. The requirement of difficulty progression within the game, therefore, does not surprise anyone. A good thing to design are challenges which together with the progress of the player, give her an opportunity to stand in situations in which she must create/redefine representations of the challenge and/or develop new solutions (yellow and red paths of the diagram).
The issue of the difficulty is in itself a complex and divergent topic. Apart from the described regularities there are other important modifiers of difficulty, for example the level of arousal of an organism at a given time or errors associated with human cognition. The perspective adopted in this post helps to answer what affects the difficulty and how to adjust it effectively in the game.* Looking at present games in the context of their possible "simplification" (compared to what they used to be) one should take into account both what is happening with the games, as well as the fact that the players are also changing (learning). In this case, it is difficult in to put a clear verdict because a lot depends on what goals one places before the games, hopes put in them and what games one has in mind.
* Complementary perspective is offered by Csikszentmihalyi Flow theory.
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